In the face of recession, Ballantyne Corporate Park leaders stuck to their “If we build it, they will come” mentality. If they hadn’t, MetLife might not be bringing 1,300 jobs to south Charlotte.
Leaders with MetLife, a giant in the life insurance and employee benefits field, confirmed rumors this week when they announced the company’s new U.S. retail business headquarters would in fact be coming to Ballantyne. The move to Charlotte was announced last month, but the exact location wasn’t officially announced until this week.
The corporate park had more than enough space to accommodate such a large move – not because vacancy is up in Ballantyne, but because park chairman Smoky Bissell made the decision years ago to prepare for better days despite what the recession was throwing at them.
“At its core, this is really just Smoky Bissell at his finest,” said Ned Curran, park president and CEO, on Bissell’s decision to build office space in Ballantyne despite not having any tenants lined up for the buildings. Bissell decided in the heart of the recession to build two new, 10-story buildings – the Gragg and Woodward buildings – at a combined 550,000 square feet of office space. They cost $21 million each and soon will be home to 1,300 MetLife employees. The company will completely fill the Gragg Building and take up two floors of the Woodward Building.
“(Bissell) bears the risk, has the risk tolerance,” Curran said of the decision. “He’s the one that, against the current (of a poor economy), he just has a certain conviction about Charlotte and about Ballantyne that he believes it’s going to attract more than its percentage of the market share. And that’s been borne out.”
The corporate park has filled some 600,000 square feet of space annually since 2008 in business expansions, renewals and new leases, something that’s “compelling even on a national basis,” Curran said, adding Bissell has faith that “we’re in one of the finest cities in the country to live and work and … if we bring the product and do it right, we’ll win the business.”
The corporate park is constantly planning for more buildings, Curran said, including projects that could blend a number of uses such as office space, dining and possibly even residential space. Speculative building, or constructing buildings without a guarantee anyone will ever move there, is something the park has become an expert in. Of all the buildings in the park, Curran said only three were built specifically for a business.
If the Gragg and Woodward buildings hadn’t been sitting there waiting for inhabitants, MetLife could be going somewhere else in Charlotte, taking those jobs and local dollars with it. MetLife executive vice president Eric Steigerwalt said in a news release announcing the decision that the park’s “impressive facilities” was a key factor.
“I think the business cycle for many years now has become shorter and shorter in terms of decision makers’ timeframes to makes decisions,” Curran said of a company picking where to expand or relocate. “And to conceive of a building, have the plans done and to build the building today is probably a 20 to 30 month period. That’s an eternity in today’s business cycle.
“If we have products standing, we will win the lion’s share of the business.”
The park won MetLife, just as it did SPX Corp. when the multinational company decided to stay in Ballantyne last year – leading to the new building overlooking Johnston Road and Interstate 485 where some 430 employees work. That was one of the few times the park built new housing specifically for a company. SPX already had some employees in Ballantyne, and decided to keep them there when it came time to expand.
Expansion will continue, something park leaders have been working on in more ways than just constructing buildings. The recent partnership between the park, city, county and state has Bissell paying $11 million for local road improvements – including the Community House Road bridge crossing I-485. Bissell wanted the improvements in order to prepare the park for growth, and opted to push the projects now instead of waiting for the city or state to get around to the work. Bissell will get paid back over the course of 15 years, receiving 45 percent of new taxes generated by increased tax values in the park.
Fourteen spots for new buildings were indicated in the original proposal for the public-private partnership. Some of that space already is filled.
The MetLife decision could have a far-reaching impact on the region, especially in the area housing market. Elaine Eschert, an area real estate agent with Golden Properties, said in an interview with South Charlotte Weekly last month that MetLife coming to Ballantyne could be good news for people who have been waiting to sell their homes. Speaking on Wednesday, Eschert said the region is currently experiencing an explosion in home sales, something MetLife coming to town only will help.
“I think this is the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Because, as more and more companies relocate here, it gives other companies the thought that ‘MetLife moved there, maybe we should look at moving there, too.’”
To that, Curran says he still has eight floors open in the Woodward Building, if you’re interested.